The good news is that the Utah Legislature has seen fit to support strategies to address Utah's continuing doldrums in terms of reading achievement. BRAVO!
The bad news is that the Legislature has supported a piecemeal strategy that focuses on the reading achievement of young, elementary children only. There are three problems with this approach.First, unless a reading initiative is a part of a systematic reform strategy, it won't work. Schools, like all other organizations, are "ecosystems." Every part affects every other part. If you touch one aspect of a school, you affect all other parts.
A reading initiative cannot be successful if it is really just a politically expedient way to address the complex dilemmas of effective schooling by a Legislature and governor who at times think short term about long-term problems. There is no solution to our reading achievement doldrums that will turn things around by the next election.
What is needed is a reading initiative that is part of a schoolwide, standards-based reform strategy. What does that mean? Comparing the education system to a family, it means you can't fix a family by focusing only on the relationship between children. Only when the entire family commits itself to change is there a chance for progress.
Elementary schools like Rose Park and Edison in Salt Lake City and Valley View in Weber County understand the power of schoolwide reform. These schools have a strategic plan, and they use it just like any good business.
These schools stress social development and family involvement as well as reading achievement. They understand that each of the three affect the others. These schools are systemically addressing instruction, curriculum and the spirit of the school. They will succeed.
The next problem is really a potential problem. Unless elementary schools use research-based approaches to teach elementary reading, there will be no positive effect. We know how to teach reading for high achievement.
Two years ago, the Granite District conceived a reading task force to determine a more unified reading approach justified by the research. This task force chose a basal reading series, "Open Court," based on the research of Marilyn Sager Adams, the National Institutes of Health, and many professors at the University of Utah and Utah State University.
The task force developed a model for early reading and then chose a curriculum to fit it. At times we educators have chosen curriculum first and then have tried to justify our biased decisions. Schools should be allowed to spend funds only on research-based practices. Funds spent on bias-based decisions rather than data-based decisions will fail.
The third problem with our Legislature's action is that it fails to address a huge crisis in our schools related to reading achievement. Some of you know that there are eighth-, ninth-, 10th-, 11th- and even 12th-graders who have yet to learn to read. While some of them have disabilities, many of them are casualties of low expectations, less than effective instruction, and lack of family support. We can't allow these young people to fail.
They must be prepared now to take their places as contributors to our society rather than as drains on our economy. Almost everyone who is reading this column either has been or is a teenager. Fun, isn't it. Think about how awful is would be if you had to face every other challenge of being or having teenagers if you could not read.
There are innovations available to help these young people. One of the best is called "Language" by Jane Greene. It is a strategy that uses the best of what research has taught us to teach adolescents to read. It combines essential skill development (learning to decode the symbols on the page to the sounds of these symbols) with high-interest literature to promote comprehension and usage.
As for younger children, any reading initiative for adolescents must be a part of a broader, systemic reform strategy. Several years ago, Utah funded a 9-District Consortium to reform high school education. Nine high schools, from Dixie in St. George to Whitehorse in Montezuma Creek to Granger in West Valley City to Roy in Weber County, developed open-entry, open-exit models that worked to make certain that all students left high school with a marketable skill.
This consortium worked! However, for political reasons, its funding was removed. Too bad. These high schools were beginning to teach us new models for effective education. They understood that merely teaching reading was insufficient. These schools stressed the development of social skills. They stressed the development of job-seeking and job-keeping skills.
Stephen Covey defined trustworthiness as a combination of character and competence. In my view, schools have responsibility with families to build character and competence.
Dr. Covey taught us that we must have not only technical and conceptual competence but also "interdependence" competence. In other words, we must be effective socially as well as academically. Any reading initiative will fail if it is not a part of a broader reform strategy that addresses the achievement of the whole child. What good is skill in reading if the young person cannot get along with others? What good are social skills if a young person does not have academic competence?
The problem with schooling is that piecemeal change never is sustained. Only when we finally support long-term reform strategies that demand success for all our children at all ages will we achieve our dream of excellence with equity.
Stevan J. Kukic is a management consultant. He worked for years as director of at-risk programs for the Utah Office of Education.